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Cellulitis in Children


What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that affects the skin and tissues beneath the skin. The infection can happen in any part of your child's body. The most common areas are the arms, legs, and face.


What increases my child's risk for cellulitis?

  • An injury that breaks the skin, such as a bite, scratch, or cut
  • A foreign object under the skin
  • Shared belongings, such as towels or exercise equipment
  • A weak immune system, diabetes, or obesity
  • Athlete's foot or a lack of circulation in the legs
  • Rashes, such as eczema, that cause itching and breaks in the skin

What are the signs and symptoms of cellulitis?

  • A red, warm, swollen area on your child's skin
  • Pain when the area is touched
  • Bumps or blisters (abscess) that may drain pus
  • Bumpy, raised skin that feels like an orange peel

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider may know your child has cellulitis by looking at and feeling your child's skin. Tell the provider how long your child has had symptoms, and if anything helps decrease the symptoms. Tell him or her if your child has ever had a cellulitis infection. Your child's healthcare provider may not know which kind of bacteria caused his or her cellulitis. Your child also may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests may show the bacteria causing your child's infection.
  • A sample of fluid from one of your child's sores may show the bacteria causing the cellulitis.
  • A sample of tissue from your child's infected skin may show the bacteria causing his or her infection. The sample may also show if the infection is caused by another kind of skin disorder.
  • An x-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI may show if the infection has spread. Your child may be given contrast liquid to help the infection show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not let your child enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if your child has any metal in or on his or her body.

How is cellulitis treated?

Treatment may decrease symptoms, stop the infection from spreading, and cure the infection. Treatment depends on how severe your child's cellulitis is. Cellulitis may go away on its own. Your child may instead need antibiotics to help treat the bacterial infection. Your child's healthcare provider may draw a circle around the edges of his or her cellulitis. If your child's cellulitis spreads, his or her healthcare provider will see it outside of the circle.

How can I help manage my child's symptoms?

  • Elevate the area above the level of your child's heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop the area on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated comfortably.
  • Clean the area daily until the wound scabs over. Gently wash the area with soap and water. Pat dry. Use dressings as directed.
  • Place cool or warm, wet cloths on the area as directed. Use clean cloths and clean water. Leave it on the area until the cloth is room temperature. Pat the area dry with a clean, dry cloth. The cloths may help decrease pain.

What can I do to prevent my child from getting cellulitis?

  • Remind your child to not scratch bug bites or areas of injury. Your child increases his or her risk for cellulitis by scratching these areas.
  • Protect your child's skin. Have your child wear equipment made for a sport he or she is playing. For example, have him or her wear knee and elbow pads when skating, and a bicycle helmet when riding a bike. Make sure your child wears shirts and pants that will protect his or her skin, and sturdy shoes.
  • Wash any scrapes or wounds with soap and water. Put on antibiotic cream or ointment, and cover it with a bandage. Check for signs of infection, such as pus or swelling, each time you change the bandage.
  • Do not let your child share personal items, such as towels, clothing, and razors.
  • Have your child wash his or her hands often. Make sure he or she washes with soap and water after using the bathroom or sneezing. He or she also needs to wash his or her hands before eating. Use lotion to prevent dry, cracked skin.
  • Treat athlete's foot or any other skin condition. This can help prevent a bacterial skin infection by lessening the itching and breaks in the skin.

Call 911 if:

  • Your child has sudden trouble breathing or chest pain.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • The infected area gets larger and more painful.
  • Your child has a thin, gray-brown discharge coming from the infected skin area.
  • Your child has purple dots or bumps on his or her skin, or you see bleeding under the skin.
  • Your child has new swelling and pain in his or her legs.
  • The red, warm, swollen area gets larger.
  • You see red streaks coming from the infected area.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has a fever.
  • Your child's fever or pain does not go away or gets worse.
  • The area does not get smaller after 2 days of antibiotics.
  • Your child's skin is flaking or peeling off.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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